Monday, April 12, 2010

Culture reread VIII: Matter


First time I read this, I really disliked the novel. I found the prose bad, the edge missing, the plot ranging from indifferent to bad, the themes weak and the characters unengaging. It was with Excession the only story I didn't enjoy the first time, and I was alternatively dreading the reread and hoping I might also see it in a more positive light. Well, I can put that hope to rest. Matter is an aesthetic failure, a mishandling of writing that stands solidly in the bottom tier of the Culture series, and reconfirms that Banks hasn't really written anything worth reading in the last five years. On a sentence to sentence level it's better than State of the Art, but given it's six times as long and has some much worse moments as pivotal, I'll go ahead and call this the worst Culture story yet written.

Problems: the writing, the characterization, the plotting (sweet God, the plotting), the themes and the larger role in the Culture series. There are some interesting ideas put in, but the whole book was at best several drafts short of completion. It's padded and episodic like no one's business, lots of it are overwritten to the point of tedium, the characters and their situations aren't basically engaging, and the whole narrative shoots itself in the foot spectacularly near the end. First, the prose. It's rarely more than functional, and the great control of sensory details and dialog that I've previously gushed about are largely lacking here. Further, long parts are so clumsy and drawn out that I want Banks to just get to the point. Clearly the whole pseudo-poetic aspect of the Sarl viewpoint is intentional, but the book overdoes it significantly. There are only so many lines like: "A principal strand of this concern centred on who he could find to dispose of these two if they did prove in sum more liabilitous than advantageous to him; he had various options in that regard, but the most ruthless tended to be the least trustworthy and the least criminal the most tentative" (ibid, 157) before it becomes actively tedious to sit through.

The novel feels, in a word, unnecessary. For another word, it's self-indulgent. All the previous stories worked in one way or another to interrogate the nature of the Culture, to question it's place in the universe and the morality of their actions. To express a notion of deep tragedy even linked to and enabling utopia. One of the pleasures of the reread was finding how ambivalent the presentation of this project was, how work after work offered new virtues and things that were appealing about the Culture, but also new problems. The utopian and dystopian elements were continually in tension, and from every story after Consider Phlebas the narrative never committed fully to the Culture. With Matter, that's largely gone. There are a few hints of ambivalence but they feel basically like token gestures rather than a serious examination. Here the Culture is pretty unquestionably a Very Good Thing, and the way this is established narratively is through much more shorthand from than before.

The epilogue in particular drives that home. It seems that based on Holse's new associations and announced career that the Culture is going to take a much more active role in the Sellword, and specifically in pushing for radical change with the Sarl. I don't mind this in its own sake, but given how little we see of the actual Culture here, and how much less substantive the justification of its position is, there feels like too much unsaid. At one point Djan has a conversation with a repreentative of the Peace Faction who angrily accuses the Culture of being a cancer gotten loose, that the peace group are the only real faction while Special Circumstnaces are in particular tainted by the violence and corruption they undertake. After Use of Weapons and particularly Look to Windward, that's a conversation worth having, but Djan doesn't engage. Her answer is that the ongoing capacity for introspection and self-doubt for Special Circumstances establishes their moral validity, but we're given very little substance of this. In contrast, the attitude in this scene and others seems overly smug, self-confident and cosy, thoroughly justified in their actions. There's a fundamental issue dodged here about SC's status as ostensibly a fully free, voluntary, non-hierarchical organization while also being professional and disciplined enough to maintain operations its secrecy. There's an important set of questions not being asked here, and that weighs a lot more heavily than the substance.

More in the self-indulgent attitude appears with the sort of winks the story gives to familiar issues in the setting. Such as when Djan laments all the funny names of Ships. Or when she's prevented from bringing a drone into Morthanveld space, because it's known "almost as a cliche" that drone plus SC agent was a lethal combination. This seems clearly oriented as a wink towards readers of Use of Weapons, and by the end that adds up. Unlike previous books, this one doesn't feel like it was written for the sake of anyone interested in the story, or to express things Banks wanted to. It feels like it was written specifically for fans of the Culture series, and that's problematic.

Matter makes an especially ungainly contrast with Look to Winward, reinforced by starting this the day after finishing the earlier work, instead of two years as I did initially (or eight years, for some people). I wondered for a bit if the longer delay and raised expectation didn't cause me to view it too harshly, but looking at the two texts side by side Matter appears even weaker. The lack of edge to the project is particularly crucial. For all the strangeness there's little sign of fundamentally grotesque ends. While there is some intense creativity is mostly feels rather cozy, fairly same and comfortable, not at all the Banks one would expect from the Eaters, Azad's recreation, the chairmaker, the EDust assassination. Bizzarely, much of the energy is toned down.

And then there's characters. On my first reading I identified them as fairly strong, but in subsequent months they left little strong impression in my mind, and looking through again each protagonist and arc seems significantly compromised. I've alluded to a bit of the issues with Matter's presentation of SC, but there are other issues with Djan's narrative. Fundamentally she's not a very interesting character--her background and circumstances seem interesting, but the character is ultimately no less generic than one would expect from 'princess becomes a SC agent'. Basically she ultra-competent, teched out, ultra-committed to what are in-universe the right things and has little in the way of major issues to deal with. That makes her an uninteresting character. Only in the very last moments of the book do things become truly problematic for her, and even then she triumphs above all odds. She never really changes, and comes across consistently as far too perfect, too successful, too uncomplicated to seem fully fleshed out. Put alongside Gurgeh, Zakalwe, Quinlan, or even Horza she's barely a character at all, and leaves a fundamental Culture-sized whole where the story's core ought to be. Her whole arc is in travel from place to place, but she herself doesn't change. The most rewarding thing with her are flashbacks to the earlier coming of age into the Culture, and even these seem flatter than past segments on this theme.

The Ferbin narrative is bogged down by the fact that it's almost entirely a stock fantasy cliche. The prince who witnesses the treacherous murder of his father, and leaves to find allies and vengeance. The story in itself is engaging, but what appears to make it interesting is the environment is not ultimately one supporting the traditional norms of fantasy, the Cultureverse is not a place where divine right of kings is maintained. Furthermore, Ferbin is specifically in the Shellworld, and the grand pull back from his account shows a view where his own outrage and grievance, however passionate, are trivial for the alien species that are above them. This is the reasonable expectation, but it's undermined first by the fact that Ferbin never changes--he remains the same arrogant, entitled, political conservative he was all along. Second, there's the matter of tyl Loesp. It seems from the opening scene that Banks has to be setting us up for a twist--that the over the top scene of blood-drenched perfidy will reveal some subversion, an indication of how the old king wasn't actually better, that Loesp has some more complex ambition or even if not might in some way facilitate a movement forward in history. Djan thinks to herself after hearing of her father's death that he had been ultimately a brutal warlord who lived and died by the sword. The Morthanveld states that from the outside Involved perspective Sarl internal politics were basically equal. Hyrlis points out directly that it makes little sense for Loesp to have violated his oaths to gain direct power when he already had such influence, and that he may have had some more nuanced intent.

And yet we find out eventually this is wrong, that Loesp is actually so cruel, power-hungry and destructive. One might have expected based on the convoluted movements of the Greater Good in Use of Weapons and Inversions that there would be a tension here between the Culture's radical democratic values and the monarchical system, that Djan might find a conflict between her familial instinct and what her SC training told here was necessary for long-term interests of the Sarl and neighbors. This doesn't happen. Bizzarely, the novel comes to vindicating Ferbin's viewpoint, showing his thoughts and actions to be that of a tyrant, harmful to the mass populace and particularly those he fights against, and utterly without redeeming qualities. It's mindblowing what a flat villain Loesp is, how cliched, predictable and unengaging and mustache-twirling evil he consistently shows himself as. He's unambiguous, flat, the typical grand vizier who murders those most in his trust for the sake of power. He needs only a long cape and a maniacal laugh to be complete. This is a huge error for the book in a number of ways. For one thing it makes his supposed hoodwinking of everyone (including Special Circumstances!) quite unbelievable, this is someone that oozed evil as soon as he was introduced and is fundamentally unsubtle in his actions. Second, it undermines the whole politics and ambiguity, and makes the potential for a clashing of viewpoints with Frebin and Djan be wasted. When Djan learns of the usurpation she resolves to remove Loesp from power. It becomes irrelevant shortly, but we're never given to question that this is the right thing to do, particularly because of all the people he's gotten killed--and this makes for a very flat main structure.

There are a lot of ways of assessing how Banks went wrong in his more recent writing, but I think one of the most fundamental is the weakness of crafting antagonists. The 'villains' in Consider Phlebas were the Culture. In Player of Games Nicosaur is given a complex environment, isn't shown too much and appears in such a harsh situation that he can be sympathetic even against the monstrous system he embodies. The Humanists in Use of Weapons were a bit flat and decadent, but Zakalwe was ultimately a greater monster than other and in the tone of the focus it worked. State of the Art lacked formal antagonists per say. Excession had the Affront, jovialenough through all the sadism to be striking, and a conspiracy of Minds that had understandable, benevolent-intended goals. Inversions featured corrupt nobles protecting their positions, but also their whole system of life, and in most cases weren't particularly cartoonish. In Look to Windward Quinlan is extremely complex and sympathetic. Yet from that point, Banks moved significantly downhill. I was a fan of Luseferos when I read the Algebraist for being so over the top, campy, sadistic and more clever than he appeared, but in retrospect that might have been a bad decision point. Since then, Banks has delivered villains that are startingly one-note, being wholly malevolent, not terribly smart or complicated, being just plot coupons to be wiped out when it's convenient. This applies to one of the biggest issues with Transiton, and to almost as great an extent here. Loesp isn't ultimately the final antagonist (not that this is an improvement, see bellow regarding the Iln) but he's the main adversary that drives much of the plot, and the way he's made simple and unsympathetic is one of Matter's biggest weaknesses.

The Oramen narrative is the most overall effective of the three. He's the only one that doesn't spend endless time wandering place to place, the one that is settled into a particular moment in history and can see how things are shifting around him. He's the one who eschews combative posture and works towards building of the future, and also the one who has to make compromises with an existing and unjust social structure, where he's perpetually on quickstand. He's the only character that changes across the novel, and amidst that he's shown to be moving from one impossible context to another. He ultimately has force as a human struggling to do his best resulting in acute tragedy, and his story has a lot more pathos than either of his siblings. He's hampered a lot by being burdened with Devil in Plain Sight Loesp, and ending his story so unsatisfactorily (see bellow) but overall he's the closest the story comes to effectiveness. I read him in part as a more priviledged version of the narrative from Inversions, and it's interesting that even with his questioning he doesn't move beyond some basic prejudices. In particular, turning from the Aultridia's warning out of pure superstition, when their advice was ultimately vindicated. It's also interesting to see through him how a medieval society shifts and changes, amidst a backdrop of the Shellworld and thorough knowledge of alien societies.

Holse is alright, and it's interesting to see how he does change. Fundamentally, though, I didn't buy into his presumed whit, though, and was sufficiently dissatisfied by his ending fate as a SC representative to be fairly disappointed with his emotional journey throughout.

Other thoughts: themes. Hyrlis gives his analysis on 338-341, opinioning that life is not a virtual reality simulation, "We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself, not running in some abstracted system as patterns of particles or standing waves of probability." Well, there's the title of the novel put in. It feels like an odd moment, having a secondary character ramble on for no particularly justified reason, bringing some weak philosophical insights into the simplistic action plot. On the whole I'm not pleased, and think this moment captures a lot of what's wrong with the whole approach of the book. As a theme it's not really laid out through the text. The notion of surveillance and levels of hierarchy is, but taking that to a discussion of a simulated environment is a reach. Furthermoere, this discussion is redundant with the analysis in The Algebraist, which worked better there because it was laid into the setting and connected a bit with the discussion of politics. For a detailed, ethically rich exploration of the justifiability of a lifelike reality simulation, take Greg Egan's recent story "Crystal Nights". Banks' work here seems feeble by comparison.

One thing the novel does do well and that makes the larger project worthwhile is the focus on hierarchy. The story is all about different levels of control, distance from a situation and how that impacts on the politics of it. Levels of class, essentially, both from lowly to royalty within Sarl and then the look out at Oct who are all in a fundamental sense above even the Sarl kind. There's a range of interaction amongst levels of scale and technology that factors into the physical differences of the Shellworld, which makes the latter one of Banks more effective metaphors. While I wasn't particularly impressed with any of the new species on display here, the mode of seeing them interact was intriguing. It's a more diverse cosmos, for one thing--"There were bogglingly large numbers just of these pan-humans, but they still formed less than a single per cent of all the aggregated life-mass of the greater galaxy" (ibid, 167) There's a range here that makes all the Culture's arrogance and prominence seem petty, even while they assert just the contrary, putting themselves at the apex of a progressive narrative of history.

"Avoid self-destruction, recognise--and renounce--money for the impoverishing ration system it really was, become a bunch of interfering, do-gooding busybodies, resist the siren call of selfish self-promotion that was Sublming and free your conscious machines to do what they did best--essentially running everything--and there you were; millennia of smug self-regard stretched before you, no matter what species you had started from." (ibid, 174)

Perhaps what the book does best is indicate how much more there is to the galaxy than the Culture. This is undermined a fair bit across the stroy by the weakness of the novel--Loesp being just that flat and destructive, and the Iln posing a threat to all concerned on the Shellworld--but it still keeps a good momentum across. It's a new viewpoint of the Cultureverse, or rather giving a lot more energy and creative detail to it. It's not the Culture at the top imposing a measure of altruistic restraint and development on lower tech world to become enlightened post-scarcity hedonists. Individual relationships with the Culture and others take that tone--Player of Games and Inversions in particular--but more widely speaking it's a fluid environment ranging from quite lowly groups up through intersections and chains of mentorship, through treaties to high level Involved. At that point the Culture is arguably less widespread and influential than the Morthanveld, and both of these are minor on the hierarchy compared with the Elder species, who are feeble compared with the Sublimed. The whole view of interlocking relationships and levels of control seems more like the Uplift universe at points than the Culture, but it's ultimately a meaningful contribution.

On the alien species, none is a total failure, but neither are any of the depicted here a success. One thing I meant to address in Look to Windward was how effective the Chelgrains were--a complex species with advanced tech and the social effects of that but limitation, the unique aspect with their actualized religion, the caste system and their struggle to fight against it. They had almost the range of complexity of a C. J. Cherryh alien species, a real sense of a group that functioned with a complex history on the state, economy and cultural level. The three newbies don't come close to that, and in this I'm not even addressing the Sarl who are a coookie cutter primitive monarchy, with far less of the complex or dynamic nature of the Haspidus.
The Oct fare decently, but are under-developed. As a level of technology they're most intriguing for their hybridity--distant overlords

The Nariscene are ultimately the flatest, largely because we didn't get a sense of why they had such a viscous edge. Starting wars just for entertainment? What kind of Involved does that, and how are they able to get away with it even to the extent they did?

The Morthanveld are the most sustained new civilization, and easily the most interesting. Basically Culture-equal in tech, much greater then them in age and population, and fairly removed in foreign policy. They're enjoyably alien, have a good sense of themselves in their tech, ships and Nestworlds, and offer a sense of defined ideology that's a lot more anti-colonial than the Culture. It's a worthwhile vision to have as a counter-argument against the Culture ...which makes it a shame just how thoroughly Banks undermines this, along with everything else, in the last sixty pages. The Morthanveld are shown to be incorrect in their core approach not because of effective arguments or a deep narrative structure, but because their comparable laxity lets the Iln get out. They left the Oct too uncontrolled, and didn't build AI with self-modifcation, and in this novel both acts help facilitate disaster. It's only the Culture that's able to launch a last ditch assault and save the entire Shellworld. They're vindicated not from an effective argument or deep theme but because they beat the evil alien menace that was woken up all Indiana Jones style.

And of course the Iln bulldoze over the rest the plot too. This is just flat out bad writing on Banks' part--the Iln were mentioned once in the initial setup as the anti-Inheritors and against Shellworlds, and were presumed extinct, then once more a hundred pages later as a reminder of both, then it gets unearthed a hundred pages from the end and goes on a killing rampage fifty pages from the end. Why do they want to wipe out the Shellworld? No satisfactory reason given, motivation not a factor. And the Iln makes everything that had happened with Loesp and Oramen, plus Ferbin's long quest to get aid completely irrelevant in a second. I do have to laugh at how quickly Ferbin's motivation turns from 'Avenge my father my killing Loesp!' to 'Avenge my brother my killing the Iln!'. It's all so trite, so flat, so by the numbers doomdsday scenario. There are a variety of things that don't make much sense from the standpoint of occurring in the Cultureverse--so Oramen happened to be able to detect and resist an effectgor level mind-attack enough to get out the word on Iln? Which was heard by a soldier who survived the nuclear attack and was able to pass it on to Djan? And the Cutlure and Morthanveld ships exactly canceled out, with a ramming attack? And the Iln actually cared enough to dissect Djan when it was planning on killing them all in another minute?--but more problematic is the way Banks just throws up his hands and gives up on the apparent narrative and the announced themes. In a way that justified the Culture having a primary role, naturally. An incredibly stupid and disjointed plot resolution, and weakens an already problematic book considerably.

Similar to and better than: Gene Wolfe's Claw of the Conciliator

Similar to and worse than: Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep

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